The Matter of the Heart | Ian Davidson
Ian Davidson’s childhood and adult life was mostly spent in north Wales before a move to Newcastle Upon Tyne in the northeast of England. Ian has since moved to Ireland and now lives on a small farm in Mayo on the west coast. Recent publications are a New and Selected Poems (Shearsman, 2022), By Tiny Twisting Ways (Aquifer, 2021) and From a Council House in Connacht (Oystercatcher, 2021), work which has been extensively reviewed nationally and internationally and is critically acclaimed. Ian, now Professor of Poetry at University College Dublin, has also written many books and essays on modern and contemporary writing, with recent publications focusing on Diane di Prima and Lenore Kandel.
The Matter of the Heart is in two parts. The first, ‘In Many Hands’, is an account of a twenty-two day stay in a public hospital ward in Dublin waiting for surgery. It documents the life of the ward, the people on it, and how it felt for the body to go from a private concern to one which was public property. It is funny, albeit with an edge to the humour, depicting a world in which patients climb into the wrong bed or roar incomprehensibly through oxygen masks in a vain attempt to communicate. Amongst the characters providing their own particular view of hospital life are the ‘specials’, patients who require twenty-four-hour supervision to keep themselves safe. The second part, ‘Stress Management’, is an account of a six-week rehabilitation course in which heart patients are taught ways to reduce stress. In the poem sequence a group of middle-aged people are brought face to face with mortality in ways that make them re evaluate their lives. Despite the scale of this opportunity the course instructed the participants to focus on the ‘little things’ rather than issues of life and death, aiming to help them to take their place again in a world of work that was responsible for nearly killing them in the first place. The poetry in this book takes us back to the heart of things, the ones that really matter.
‘With great acuity The Matter of the Heart traces for its reader tentative boundaries between private and public, body and world, caregiver and patient, in prepping for bypass surgery the speaker ludically comments that “I go from writer in residence/ to crown prince”. Davidson negotiates the hospital wards with candour and humour, offering remarkable observation and empathy. Luminous phrases startle the reader and at one point the speaker reflects “maybe if I keep/ watching the sea/ I will live forever”. Davidson’s masterful particulars of form iterate the beat of a poetics being made. If technique is the test of a poet’s sincerity, Wales has its assured modernist and Ireland celebrates his residency.’
—Dr Nerys Williams, poet and critic
‘On 17 September 2018, Ian Davidson was an emergency admission to an acute hospital ward in Dublin. The two sequences of poems in this volume record the events of the following months. “In Many Hands” documents the twenty-three days between his admission and “the main event” of his heart-surgery; “Stress Management” offers a poem a week for the six weekly rehabilitation classes he had to attend subsequently. The first sequence is site-specific work “written on location”, which tracks the patient’s experience of powerlessness and loss of privacy with the “transfer” of his body out of his hands; the surrender to the rituals and technologies of the hospital; the heightened awareness of the fragility of the body; the enforced familiarity with (and necessary distance from) the other patients and the nurses; the reduction of life to the beating of the heart, the circulation of the blood, attention to breath, the yearning for escape and recovery of the old life. The second sequence sets the proclaimed “safe space” of the stress-management class against the participants’ acute awareness of mortality. Conscious of his own return from the dead and of that feared final pause of the heart Davidson provides a critical perspective on the well-meaning programme. At the same time, he explores another sense of stress- management through the form of poems and their heavy use of enjambement: the pause at the end of the line becomes a space of suspension, hesitation, of being-towards-death.’
—Professor Robert Hampson, poet and critic
‘The Matter of the Heart is a moving account of incarceration and rehabilitation. The immediacy of life is placed under scrutiny in unfamiliar circumstances, and experienced through the unknown otherness of companion strangers, carers, patients and workers of hospital life.
These poems are a raw and painful journey traversing an unknown physical and psychic hinterland where adjustment is the abiding criteria. The writing is strongly emotive, care filled and vulnerably open. They narrate an exposed and stitched living edge, at once document, reflection and projection.’
—Ralph Hawkins, poet
‘From the surreal energies of the emergency room to the mingled voices of men in recovery, The Matter of the Heart holds the fragility of the body, and its enduring power to make meaning, in delicate balance. It is a book that asks questions about the nature of suffering—how it is apprehended and expressed, whether it can be shared. Through its deft use of form, we become conscious of the passage of time, as the urgency of medical intervention yields to the slow processes of reflection and healing. In these remarkable poems, uncertainties of perception and communication are rendered vividly yet with sensitivity. The breath that expresses survival is the same breath that shapes the poetic line—seeming anxious and restrained at first, but gradually finding its way back to the process of assured creation. In a world loud with self-regard, The Matter of the Heart is a necessary meditation on what it means to think and speak of the self, and how this might alter our way of seeing others.’
—Dr Lucy Collins, Associate Dean, University College, Dublin
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